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Avenger Assembled

Brighter Than The Moon (IC)

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HAX

September 14, 2012

Agent Richard Andretti took a breath before he began to speak, the AEGIS agent obviously very tense. "It's called Project Big-Eye, or was, anyway," said the black-suited man as he spoke to Mara and her team, a rotating hologram of a massive, double-chambered bomb on the wall behind him. "A binary chemical weapon begun in the 1970s, designed to fight the Peoples' Heroes and other Communist meta-human forces. A canister of sulfur is mixed with a canister of the precursor QL, then exposed to cosmic radiation before detonating over its target. The resulting chemical compound is almost instantly lethal to normal humans, and dangerous even to people with superpowers. The program ended twenty years ago when a new administration came to power, and the stockpile was destroyed."

He pressed a few buttons on his briefcase computer, and a small grouping of old-fashioned chemical barrels came into view. "Except for a small stockpile that was stolen back in 1988 by Susie Buck, the anarchist supervillain. She was killed 'resisting arrest' by the Price of Freedom Squad here in Freedom City five years later, and the stockpile she stole was never found...until today." The view changed again to a small tenement apartment, perhaps ten stories in height. "One of our super-sniffers detected a chemical leak from the old Coleman Building last night, and our preliminary tests have pinpointed it as residue from decaying storage barrels like those used in the Bigeye project. We've come up with a cover story and evacuated most of the building, but we've got a big problem. Our specialized chemical team is deployed right now to the Southeast, and they can't be reached until they're out from underground. We need someone who can go into the building immediately, assess the situation, and destroy the Bigeye stock by whatever means necessary. And that's where HAX comes in."

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Mara kept her peace as Agent Andretti spoke, unusually respectful but predictably dour as he went over the history of the problem at hand. idiots - "how do we make this chemical deadlier" - "pump full of cosmic radiation!" - wonder there's still a country

"Mmh. Exotic weapon disposal is...an unadvertised service," Mara pointed out, tilting her head at the barrels and mentally disassembling them. "Something we do, but not often. Assuming you know the ground rules, but going to repeat them - no misunderstandings." The young inventor tapped a finger on the table, turning her gaze back on the would-be client. "Will clean up after your mess, but it will be gone. You don't get samples, parts, salvage. You get data on disposal methods only after - if - we review and decide data can't be reverse-engineered to make better weapons. Not negotiable."

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In response, the agent reached into his case and took out a sheet with US government letterhead. "I have an authorization from the director of AEGIS for you to dispose of what's left of Bigeye in whatever manner you see fit. Frankly, the less we have of it at the end of the day, the better for all of us." Andretti curled his lip. "Bigeye is the legacy of a shameful era that we'd thought we'd put behind us. All we ask is that you have verifiable evidence that the weapon has been destroyed, and that you confirm the storage and tracking figures we give you about the missing shipment. If what's left in the old Green building is what Susie Buck stole twenty-four years ago, people will be resting easier in Freedom City and in high-value targets all over the continental United States."

"You said this was a binary weapon," said Steve from his position at the table, the former Omegadrone's experience with cosmic radiation and all manner of weapons having made him a valuable consultant on matters like this. "What exactly was included in the shipment? What are the risks of detonation now?"

"The hijacked shipment was carrying the binary components together, minus the electronic and chemical triggers that would have forced the combination." Andretti's face showed what he thought of that kind of security. "Before my time. Even with the leak, the primary risk to locals is chemical contamination. Several of the components used were very toxic, albeit not as lethal as a completed Bigeye itself. It would take a powerful, sudden energy source; an multiton explosion or the deliberate use of metahuman powers, to trigger an actual detonation. If one did happen, we estimate that at least two square kilometers of the city would be threatened. The loss of lives would be in the thousands at a minimum."

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Erin kept quiet for the start of the briefing, out of her depth in talks of chemical weapons and cosmic radiation. She did know something about tactics, however, and about human nature. "What's the cover story you've come up with?" she asked. "And how likely is it that word of this is going to leak out before we can get the materials contained? If this is as hot as you say it is, any supervillain who hears about it is going to want a piece, not to mention some pretty nasty non-meta organizations. And even a fishy story might make some random person curious enough to hang back and have a look around. How much can we trust that your sniffers and the people wrangling the civilians were perfectly discreet?"

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"The locals have been told that there's an unexploded Grue warhead under their building, one left over from their most recent invasion and uncovered by the new sewer line that's being dug across the street," said Andretti with a nod Erin's way. "That proved sufficiently alarming to clear out most of the inhabitants. As for our teams, that's impossible to verify," he admitted. "We deployed trained professionals, but there's no way to be sure the information didn't leak. Lincoln does have several local supervillains, as well as mundane street gangs, who'd be very excited to get their hands on this kind of technology even if just to sell it off to the highest bidder. That's another reason to get things done as quickly as we can."

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Mara made a groaning sound like her brain was dying, having put her head in both hands as soon as Andretti had started talking. what "Covered up existence of exotic chemical weapon with stories of Grue warhead?? Not going to make villain activity less likely. Might cover up your own liability. Imagine that."

She took a deep breath, pulling herself back upright and dragging some hair back behind one ear. "Yes. Okay. Will clean up after your mess, for their sake, not yours. Going to need to leave...hours ago, probably...mmh. Erin, Steve - get anything you need. Have to collect some things, and will meet you downstairs. You," she added, pointing at Andretti, "can go downstairs too. Receptionist will give you paperwork."

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"Mm." Steve had experienced similar concerns as well, but luckily his boss and his immediate superior had phrased things more tactfully than it was probably within his capacity to be. He wasn't in the mood for condemnation anyway; with his intimate personal experience with the use of weapons of mass destruction, the thought of such a holocaust unleashed upon innocent people was appalling in a way that even the most satisfying put-down wouldn't have washed away. On his feet, he said, "I will gather my equipment and meet you at the vehicle." In truth that was nothing but his weapon and the communications gear Mara had issued him as a HAX guard upon his hiring, but those things had got him through every crisis this far.

As for Andretti, he was evidently used to the capricious nature of superheroes and their objections to little things like terrifying a neighborhood in order to avoid issues of liability. With a nod to Mara, he gathered up his display case and headed out the door for the secretary's office to begin arranging the paperwork that would handsomely reward HAX, and make sure that nothing they did could possibly be turned to military purposes ever again.

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Erin nodded acquiescence, sparing Andretti a single icy glare before heading down to the security office. She didn't need much in the way of equipment to do her job, but there were preparations to be made. With Steve and herself both going offsite, she selected one of the day shift team to lead security and keep in touch with the field team. She wouldn't put it past an especially sneaky villain to let them recover the material, then lay in wait at HAX to try and steal it. Villains were tricky. She also secured a first aid kit, a few halogen lanterns, and some other odds and ends that might come in handy.

While she was at it, she called up satellite maps of the location on her fancy work phone, trying to gauge the neighborhood. She'd patrolled in Lincoln before, on her own and with others. This was Wail's neighborhood, she knew, and wondered if that notable might make an appearance with the news of a Grue warhead spreading. Erin liked Wail, but that would just make things more complicated. When she was as prepared as she was going to get, she headed downstairs with Steve.

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Mara was the last one downstairs - being the boss had its perks, but it also meant having to make sure people knew she was going to be gone, making sure Tress could pick up the slack on her personal projects, a quick check to make sure her...private lab was still secure, and at least one instance of getting caught in the elevator with someone who had some question or another.

Chemical weapons were starting to look pretty good, really.

"Okay." Her hair had escaped again, and she unconsciously brushed it back with one hand. "Let's go. Before some idiot gets there first."

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The Lincoln cul-de-sac that held the Green building was unusually crowded today, with many of the Green building's residents on the streets and looking up at their usual place of residence with some alarm. The uniformed personnel on the street were a mixture of AEGIS and Star Squad, just the sort of police and government presence that would actually be on the scene for a misplaced Grue device. It looked like the Freedom cops and government spooks were sharing authority today, as it was both another suited government agent and plainclothes Freedom City cop who were there to greet the HAX crew. "Agent Daniel Petty and Lieutenant Richard Patrick," the two said after a moment to figure out whose authority took precedent. After a moment, Petty nodded to let the local man speak first.

"We've cleared out most of the building; everyone we could find who was willing and able to get out of the premises in a hurry." Behind them, uniformed cops were doing their best to answer locals' questions about when they were going to be able to get back into their building, and what kind of crazy Grue device was down there! "The top floor is structurally unsound and the super assured us that no one else has a key. With the need to get people back and out of the area, we had to take his word for it," Patrick admitted. "The, uh, thing the Feds are interested in," he said with a sharp glance at Petty, "is down in the basement crawlspace."

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"You haven't even cleared the building?" Erin asked Patrick and Petty with flat disbelief. "What kind of two-bit sideshow operation are you running here?" Tact was not exactly her strong suit either, especially with someone who was Andretti's colleague. "If you want us to take out your bomb, you get me a couple of uniformed policemen here right now, and we'll walk them through the building ourselves, since hand-holding seems to be what's necessary here, and get the civilians out. Then, if we haven't been completely overrun by supervillains by then, maybe we can actually deal with the problem. And if it isn't too much trouble," she added sourly, "maybe someone could actually put up a perimeter here and get the civilians out of the cul-de-sac and out of the street in case we need emergency crews or backup in here?"

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"Great, now your consultant is telling me to do the job I'd have done an hour ago if your stupid Fed squad had called us in when they were supposed to," snapped Patrick, glaring at Petty with real anger in his eyes. "Murphy, Weller," he shouted to two uniformed officers who with their short haircuts and bland white features looked weirdly like twins, "go in with Miss Bossy here and clear out the building!" Across the way, a red-faced Petty was doing the same with his AEGIS crew, the armored federal agents setting up a perimeter in the street and gradually, efficiently pushing the people back out of the cul-de-sac to clear out space for both the spooks and the supers to do their job. Steve went to help with that, his intimidating, albeit helpful, presence ensuring that people backed away and out of the immediate area even before they'd consciously realized they were evading him.

Inside the building, Wander found that most of the residents had in fact cleared out with the first pass the cops had made. No one wanted to be around an unexploded bomb, especially one of Grue provenance. From the conversation between the two police officers, both of whom were sourly sharing stories about their last encounter with the Grue during the recent invasion, they hadn't been told the truth about what lay beneath the building. The cops helped a few older folks who'd still been packing out of the building, and one weedy-looking younger guy hiding inside a stairwell who swore he "just wanted to see the bomb! That was all!" The last serious holdout turned out to be Apartment 36 on the third floor, where despite repeated knocking, no one came to open the locked apartment door.

"We could hear him shuffling around in there earlier," muttered Murphy. "And his name's not on the list. Ready to do this thing?"

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Mara muttered dark things about some federal agencies being too stupid to know the meaning of 'blast radius', but she was largely happy to have let Erin do the talking - just because she'd gotten better at dealing with people over the last couple of years didn't mean she enjoyed it. Besides, wasn't having other people around to do the unpleasant things one of the perks of having employees?

With Steve on the street and Erin upstairs, Mara stayed on the ground floor to help direct people outside...and to make sure that nobody was trying to sneak their way downstairs. With a possibly unstable chemical weapon and at least two layers of lies, she wasn't inclined to take any chances.

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If Erin had been in costume instead of her security uniform, it would've been a simple matter to knock down the door and find what was inside. As it was, she was in the gray area of metahuman in civilian life, and that made things complicated. She'd been studying up on the matter since getting the job at HAX, since it was only a matter of time before something cropped up. It wasn't any less complicated, but she did have a handle on some of the basic legalities. "Go ahead and do the knock and announce," she told them, "and I'll take the door if they don't answer. Keep a couple steps back and cover me."

The police officers managed a perfectly credible knock and announce, declaring themselves police officers and demanding the door be opened. When there was no answer, Erin took the bat from her belt and twisted it open before unlocking the door with one neat kick. She thought she caught a sudden jolt of recognition from one of the officers, but there was no helping that. It was the price of operating in Freedom City with a unique weapon and no mask. Striding through the door, she paused to take in the layout of the apartment and check for occupants or potential threats.

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Erin's scan for threats was easy enough, even as the two cops came in behind her: a man and a woman were slumped together on the big couch in the middle of the living room, a few half-open bottles of pills on the table in front of them and the smell of sweat and drugs in the air. From what Erin could see underneath the blanket they were under, neither of them were wearing much clothes. They were just waking up, the guy did first; something familiar about his thin face and wavy blonde hair as he started up and gazed at Erin with bloodshot eyes before he turned to his curvaceous sweetheart and yelled, "Courtney, leave your dressing gown and run for the vane! I'll hold these hosers off!" He tossed aside the blanket as his lingerie-wearing girlfriend ran for a rear door, revealing a man clad only in red and white maple leaf boxers and wielding a bat of his own: his with a serrated triple tip that glowed blue with sizzling cold fire.

"You messed with the wrong man when you messed with the Maple Leaf, you American pigs!" And with that, he fired a blast of icy cold radiation directly at Erin!

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Erin hissed in pain as the radiation blast hit her, ice crystals forming on her uniform and spiking the ends of her hair. She shook it off and waved the police officers back, even as she activated her radio. "Stay out," she warned the cops, "that blast could kill you. Murdock, get around the back of the building and intercept a metahuman female in her underwear coming off the third floor!"

She was mindful of the warning that the top floor was not structurally sound, but took a calculated risk and leapt up to grab an exposed water pipe overhead. Swinging her legs up, she tucked in the air and tumbled over a beat-up old recliner, coming down almost nose-to-nose with The Mad Maple. Before he could react, her bat was in motion, swinging somewhat awkwardly in the close quarters but nonetheless connecting solidly with his ribs. "We're trying to save your ass, you idiot," she warned him curtly. "This whole place could blow up. Now stand down or I'll make you stand down."

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The cops stayed back for the moment, letting the obvious super handle this crisis, while Harrier gave the click of acknowledge that let Wander know he'd gotten the message. On her end of things, the half-naked woman disappeared into the apartment's back room, the door slamming and locking shut behind her. The Mad Maple, meanwhile, was proving to be a tough nut to crack. "Pfft! You must think I'm pretty stupid, eh? Sure, you track me and Courtney down the one day we're fooling around away from the Thieves' Guild!" He fired another blast Wander's way, backing up frantically from her bat, and this time proved to be a less than competent marksman. "That jerk Firebug doesn't know how to treat a lady!" Say what you will for Maple Leaf, despite the purpling bruise on his body and his distance from his discarded clothes, he wasn't running despite what a really good idea that might have been.

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"I don't care if your girlfriend is cheating on her villain boyfriend!" Erin exclaimed, even as the hapless Canadian flailed about. "I don't care if the Thieves Guild has orgy parties every night. I'm not even here to arrest you today. I just want you to get out of the goddamned building! Preferably with some clothes on!" As the second ice blast came her way, she raised her bat, holding it like she was going for a line drive, and swung away. There was an audible crackle as the bat connected with the blast of cold radiation, and suddenly the silver metal began to glow. The ice blast stopped in its flight, curved around, and shot straight back towards The Mad Maple, hitting him square in the already-bruised chest. At least the policemen were wise enough to be staying out of the room for this, she thought with a sigh.

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At Erin's message, Steve moved quickly to support his colleague. With the AEGIS agents focused on the blockade, he took a few steps back and ducked behind a parked car as he reached for his pike. Protected by its chameleon circuits, steel erupted from his flesh and warped his bones, transforming him invisibly into an Omegadrone as he roared up towards the third floor of the building. The invisible flight got the attention of the police down below, but they were more focused on the super-melee they could hear over their radios than some strange noise in the background. He floated around the closed windows, trying to get a better lead on where Erin and her antagonists were as he listened for the sound of battle. What sort of fool fights in a place such as this? he wondered, not at all happy with where this situation was going.

"What...?" cautiously, the Mad Maple backed up again, all the way till he hit the wall, staff still in his hand. "What are you talking about, lady? What's going on with this here building?"

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Erin stood back for a moment, staying her hand as long as she had his attention. "There's a bomb in the basement," she told him sternly. "It's very old, and very unstable, and very dangerous. If it goes off, this building and half the block are going to be shrapnel so small it'll take Dr. Metropolis weeks to put it back together again. Anyone inside the building when it goes is going to be nothing but a bloody smear, whether or not they can shoot cute little icicle beams." She tapped the end of her staff on the floor for emphasis. "I'm here with a team to defuse the bomb and get it out of here before anyone is hurt, but we can't do anything until the building is clear. Every second we stand here makes it more likely that someone is going to get hurt. So either you get out, or you will be carried out on a stretcher, but you're not staying here, you understand? And the same goes for your girlfriend."

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"...a bomb? Aww, no, I knew this place was too good to be true." The Mad Maple looked disconsolate in his underwear as he looked around at the lovenest that had become a prison. "This is the worst day ever." He faced Wander distrustfully, his staff lowered but still in his hand. "All right, I'll come quietly, eh? But no funny stuff. You're gonna need me to talk down Clarice anyway. She gets kind of crazy when she takes the pills, and normally in a good crazy, but, guess that's not really important now..." He coughed and started pulling on his clothes, awkwardly trying to keep hold of the staff albeit not aiming it at anything in particular. The terror of the 45th parallel was not having a good day.

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Mara sighed, making her way back out the front door and toward the first intelligent-looking member of law enforcement she could find.

"Hey," she said - not so much a greeting as an attempt to get their attention - looking far less concerned than one imagined she should be given the noise coming from the top of the building behind her. She still looked plenty grumpy at the worsening situation, though. "Might want to hurry. Was told the...bomb...was in the crawlspace. Know where, exactly? Saves time searching for it, lets us start planning while building is cleared out. Basic instructions fine, if you don't want to go back in. Understandable."

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"Foolish girl, you dare tamper with the awesome power of the WEATHER MISTRESS?" Said worthy burst her way through the apartment's rear door in fine form, now fully-dressed in her familiar costume. With a triumphant shout, she hurled a bolt of lightning from the weather wand in her hand, a searing electric jolt that Wander deflected back at her with as much ease as she had the earlier cold blast. The lightning struck the hovering woman and faded in a moment, but before the startled weather controlling gadgeteer could continue, the Mad Maple hastily intervened.

"No, baby, no! It's not like that! They're not even here for us, so they're gonna let us go when we get outside! There's some kind of big bomb down in the basement and they just want us to get out so they can fix it! Don't be a Mulroney here, honey-"

"Oh, for..." Weather Mistress rolled her eyes and said in a more normal voice, "What the hell is this? You said this was going to be our night, that we could finally do something as a couple without Firebug getting all creepy and possessive about how I'm his 'match', ha-ha, we get it," Cheeks flushing pink, she turned and stormed towards the door in more ways than one, wobbling slightly in the air. "That's it! I'm going home!"

In the room opposite, Steve appeared out of the darkness, back in human guise and visible as he came through the window near where Wander and Mad Maple were standing. "The police are deployed down below. They will be prepared for whatever these...people do." He obviously had no idea what was going on, but was willing to follow his chief's lead as they dealt with the two misplaced supercrooks, Mad Maple chasing after his erstwhile sweetheart to pour out his love for her in an accent as thick as Red Green's.

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Whatever concern Mara had about the competence of their commanders, the cops she approached had no lack of courage. An AEGIS grunt and Freedom City cop, Agent Reeves and Officer Stone, respectively, accompanied her back into the building, evidently glad not to have to deal with the super-battle overhead. "The super found it when he was trying to fix a leaky pipe," commented Stone as he led the way downstairs, the flashlight of the two officers and the jittery bulb overhead the only illumination in the cement-finished basement. The 'crawlspace' turned out to be under the cement as Reeves' handlight showed once they were down at ground-level, as shown by a half-open steel door that protruded from the cement floor awkwardly.

"Yeah, no kiddin'. Good thing the guy got curious enough to open the door, or who knows how long that thing would have been down there before it started leaking enough to actually poison people?" the agent said aloud. "There's two, maybe three feet of headroom in there, just enough to hold the bomb standing straight up, and more space to crawl around in. Super thinks it got sealed up ten years ago, when his boss bought the building from the old holding company."

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"They're standing down," Erin told him, looking somewhat bemused as she watched the pair of villains head for the stairs. "Or at least they're getting out of our hair. Follow them to the perimeter," she instructed, "but don't detain them unless they start being aggressive again. We've got bigger fish to fry, and I told them they wouldn't be arrested if they left peacefully. I'm going to finish the sweep and meet you in the basement."

Erin did a quick check of the apartment to make sure there were no more villains in hiding, then headed out, collapsing her bat and tapping her radio. "Mara, we're nearly done with the sweep, I think. If you've got something that'll scan for life signs, we can wrap it up even faster."

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